What puts the “bio” in bioarchaeology?

Stephanie Halmhofer
26 May 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/mightyisland

Archaeology is the study of the past human through the materials people left behind. The field catapulted to fame in the 1980s with the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although archaeologists don’t actually spend much of their time running from rolling boulders or trying to escape snake pit booby-traps, they do regularly experience the excitement of uncovering sites and artefacts that can be hundreds or even millions of years old. Using careful scientific methods to study artefacts and sites, archaeologists can paint a pretty thorough and detailed picture of what life was like for humans in the past.

Did you know? Genetic tests have revealed that King Richard III and Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi, a 300- to 500-year-old naturally mummified man found in northern British Columbia, both have living relatives in Canada.Studying skeletons, both human and animal, is an important part of archaeology and requires the specialized training of a bioarchaeologist. Human skeletons record nearly everything people experience during their lives, including the types of food they eat, the places they live, the illnesses or injuries they endure, and the physical activities they engage in through work or recreation.

The work of visually inspecting a skeleton and interpreting its secrets is often done by an osteoarchaeologist—someone with specialized training in analyzing human skeletons—using well-established scientific markers and measurements. A zooarchaeologist is a specialist who does the same work with animal skeletons.

Markers (also called non-metric traits) are specific physical features of a skeleton that cannot be measured using a ruler or tape measure. Instead, they are rated on a scale. For example, in human skeletons, the thicker the ridge above the eyes, the more likely the skeleton is to be male. Measurements (also called metric traits) are physical features that are measured using a ruler or tape measure. For example, measuring the length of the tibia can be used to calculate approximately how tall a person was.

Beyond markers and measurements, a bioarchaeologist can take the analysis of a skeleton to a molecular level by studying ancient DNA (aDNA) and stable isotopes of certain elements. Traces of elements like carbon, nitrogen, strontium, barium, and oxygen give a bioarchaeologist an idea of a person’s diet and where they may have lived or travelled during their lifetime.

Did you know? The study of ancient DNA (aDNA) has revealed that Ötzi the Iceman may have been suffering from Lyme disease, a bacterial infection caused by tick bites, when he died. Furthermore, taking samples from different parts of the skeleton gives values for these elements that correspond to different times in the person’s life. For example, the enamel of adult teeth is formed during childhood and is permanent. If it breaks or decays it will not repair itself. So sampling a tooth provides values from when a person was a child.

By contrast, bones change over time because they are constantly repairing themselves. Smaller bones, like ribs, take less time to repair themselves and can provide information on what a person was eating or where they were living during the last few years of their life. Larger bones, like a femur, take far more time to repair themselves and can provide values from over a long period of a person’s life.

Bioarchaeologists use aDNA in five main ways:

To provide insight into genetic relationships between individuals and groups of people, including migration patterns and connections to present-day populations. To study the origin and evolution of diseases. To determine if a skeleton was male or female by looking for different levels of the amelogenin gene, which helps control the formation of tooth enamel. To understand how humans domesticated different plants and animals. To determine the different species of animals found at archaeological sites.

In these ways, bioarchaeologists provide valuable insight into what life was like in the past by studying the remains of people who actually lived there. By examining skeletons and aDNA, bioarchaeologists can introduce you to your ancestors and show you how much life has changed... or stayed the same.

Learn more!

Bioarchaeology: The Lives and Lifestyles of Past People (2002)
C.S. Larsen, Journal of Archaeological Research 10

Scientific article providing a detailed introduction to the field of bioarchaeology.

Palaeodiet and beyond: stable isotopes in bioarchaeology (2013)
A Bogaard & A. K. Outram, World Archaeology 45
Link to abstract. Subscription required to view full text.

Novel methods of molecular sex identification from skeletal tissue using amelogenin gene (2008)
V. Gibbon, M. Paximadis, G. Strkalj, R., Ruff & C. Penny, Forensic Science International: Genetics 3
Link to abstract.Subscription required to view full text.

Anthropological Applications of Ancient DNA: Problems and Prospects (2006)
Connie J. Mulligan,  American Antiquity 71

Link to abstract. Free registration required to view full text.

The use of barium and strontium abundances in human skeletal tissues to determine their geographic origins (2003)
J. H. Burton, T. D. Price, L. E. Wright, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 13
Link to abstract. Subscription required to view full text.

Scientific articles discussing different methods used in bioarchaeology.

Stephanie Halmhofer

Originally from Steveston, BC, I completed an Associate's degree in Criminology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2009.  During this time I was introduced to the fascinating fields of archaeology and forensic anthropology and knew what I wanted to do with my life! I began my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, specializing in the field of osteoarchaeology, or the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. I completed my degree in 2012 at the University of Alberta, with a minor in First Nations studies, and have been working as an osteoarchaeologist ever since, first in Edmonton, AB, and most recently on the gorgeous Sunshine Coast of BC.

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